Compassion and Complaint

Lately I’ve encountered some pretty disturbing questions on a certain forum where I am expected to provide intelligent answers. One such question was this:

“Why are poor people so much more compassionate than rich people?”

Another Deteriorating Bridge...Obviously, the question contains a covert statement; i.e., “Poor people are more compassionate than rich people.” How do I answer such a question? After all, there are plenty of poor people who aren’t very compassionate at all. Moreover, there are plenty of so-called rich people who have lots of compassion. So the question, as posed, is unfair.

But even more disturbing were some of the answers offered. Several people, like me, objected to the rhetorical nature of the question. But unlike me, a number of them contended that “rich people” are more compassionate than poor people. They also gave their reasons why they thought so. One such answer was as follows:

“Poor people do nothing but complain, and this lacks compassion toward those who have to hear their complaints, since nobody likes to hear people complaining all the time. Rich people hardly ever complain, so this is more compassionate.”

In examining this answer, I cannot help but recall a statement I made yesterday in this speech. I related how, when I was first becoming homeless, I didn’t seem to be able to express any of the details of my situation without coming across as though I were “complaining.” People who had never been in my shoes, and who were baffled at how a man like me could possibly have descended to such a depth, interpreted my explanations of the homeless condition as “complaints.”

But when I was hurled into Poverty Culture, and I discovered the refreshing candor with which poor people discuss their common obstacles with remarkable honesty and openness, I began to understand how such a level of untainted, clear communication could easily be construed to be a “complaint.” After all, these obstacles were of necessity negative in nature, and to delineate them in detail would necessarily constitute a negative statement. Moreover, since the “negativity” of homelessness is even more pronounced than that of sheltered poverty, these communications will bear even more of the aura of “complaint” to those who don’t wish to hear such “negativity.”

FIRST HOMELESS GUY: “Man, I really tried to get a shower before the job interview, but I waited in line at the Multi-Agency Service Center for three hours before a shower opened up. By that time, I was afraid I would miss the bus and not make it to the interview. But I really needed a shower. So I showered as quickly as I could, and shaved and put on my best clothing. Then I literally ran half a mile to the bus stop, only to find that I had missed the bus, and that there was no way I would have made it to the interview on time.”

SECOND HOMELESS GUY: “Dude, I feel for you, but you gotta get a load of what happened to me! On the night before my interview, I was sleeping at my Spot when all of a sudden, two rookie cops woke me up at one in the morning, ran my criminal record, searched my backpack for drugs, and then told me to move on, after they found out I didn’t have any drugs in my backpack and didn’t have a criminal record. It rattled me just enough that I couldn’t get to sleep. I got showered and got to the bus stop on time, but I fell asleep on the bus, missed the stop, and missed my interview!

RICH GUY: “Would you both just quit whining? You spend all your time complaining, it’s no wonder you never can find a job. I bet both of you wouldn’t have even been able to keep a smile on your face throughout a 45-minute interview.”

Here, to me, the schism is obvious. The “rich guy” interprets the empathy with which the two “homeless guys” identify with each other as “complaints.” But to the homeless men, that conversation is simply a communication — not a complaint. They are relating to each other on the basis of their common ground, and such a conversation actually affirms their common dignity.

FIRST HOMELESS GUY: What do you mean, “smile?” Are you trying to tell me for one minute that the phony plastic smile you have on your face is genuine? Sure, I can put on a smile at a job interview or on a job. That’s what we call a work façade. But you’re smiling even as you rip us to shreds, and that’s nothing more than hypocrisy.

SECOND HOMELESS GUY: That’s right, Rich Guy. I bet you’re not even a happy person. If you were happy, you wouldn’t feel the need to put us down, when you’ve got everything you’ve ever needed in this life, and we’re busting our guts every day struggling to survive.”

RICH GUY: See what I mean? Both of you have a lousy attitude. It shows in all this negativity you keep throwing at me. Neither of you will ever be able to hold up and roll with the punches day after day in the workplace.

Here we have another schism. The well-meaning smile of the ignorant “rich guy” is being interpreted as hypocrisy by the homeless guys. Add that to the fact that their mutual affirmation of common dignity is being interpreted as “complaining,” and what does this tell us?  How about this:

And besides all this,
between us and you a great chasm has been set in place,
so that those who want to go from here to you cannot,
nor can anyone cross over from there to us.
– Luke 16:26

While the above Scripture pertains specifically to the “chasm” set in place between the heaven and hell, one does not have to delve very much further into the substance of the 16th Chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, before one realizes that it is the rich man who is in hell, and the poor man in heaven.

This is yet another instance of what I said in yesterday’s speech, and what I say continuously to all who would undertake an objective study of the Holy Bible. Despite the Prosperity Gospel and the modern-day deception that equates material gain with spiritual fulfillment, the Bible in general does not hurl warnings at the poor. It hurls warnings at the rich — all throughout the Book.

And as far as that smile we’re supposed to plaster on our plastic faces every morning before we sign our lives away to the daily grind, are there any particular references in the Bible to Jesus having smiled? None whatsoever. But there’s a reference to what Jesus did, rather than smile:

Jesus wept.

And that’s the 35th verse in the 11th chapter of John, in case anyone wants to look it up and actually read the Book (hint hint).

I get tired of smiling myself. Lately I’ve been looking at my picture here, and all I can think of is “Wipe that smile of your face, you phony hypocrite! This message is serious business, and you look like you’re trying to sell me a used car.”

I’ll change the picture. I’ll change it — because this is serious business. The chasm between heaven and hell might be a gulf we will never be able to bridge. But we need to bridge the Class Gap in America — and soon. If we don’t, we might just lose our country.

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The Voices That Count

In the sixties and early, pre-Watergate 70’s, we heard a lot about the Generation Gap.  It seemed that the schism between those who represented the Establishment, and those who had “dropped out” or represented what we called the counter culture, was much too wide for the sake of constructive communication.  Much tension occurred as a result, and it often morphed into violence.

That gap was called the Generation Gap because those who comprised the Establishment were substantially older than those of the emerging counter-culture.   But today, I find ourselves immersed in an even more serious gap than the age-based gap — a gap that is based on class.  

Speaking in general terms, it has not been uncommon for there to be a millionaire in office.  But a cabinet composed largely of billionaires?   That’s a new one on me, as of 2016.  And I’ve been watching this kind of stuff go down since the sixties – since before Watergate – since before the War on Drugs.   

And what about on the other side?   Poverty has abounded forever.  But for so many poor people to lack roofs over their heads?   For poverty to engulf the disabled and the developmentally challenged?  The Class Gap has never been so wide.

There has always been division – but not like this.   There has always been tension – but this is unprecedented.  And what about communication?  It’s almost impossible for those in the privileged classes to even understand what the impoverished are trying to say.  This creates frustration among the underprivileged, and frustration turns to anger, turns to outrage, turns to hate.  I see a lot of outright hatred emerging from those who struggle,  as they turn to those whose material and monetary wherewithal make them better equipped to help balance the scales, and receive only insensitivity and indifference in return.

I have lived almost sixty-five years, and I have watched this trend worsen.  We tend to frame our differences around race, gender, culture, ability, sexual orientation and age.  But seen through a lens less often considered, many of these differences really boil down to differences in socio-economic class.

I have worked for the wealthy, and I have generally found them to be very nice people: courteous, accommodating, and caring.   I have also been down and out, and have lived on the streets, where the tension is much more intrusive, and etiquette is held to be unnecessary — so much so that any use of it is often viewed to be hypocrisy.   On the other hand, the language that is commonly used for communication on the streets is often regarded as crass or even abusive among those for whom such communications are unnecessary.

A poor person who is broke, who finds five dollars on the street, will naturally see it as gift for which to be grateful.  But when I told a person who was wealthy that I had found five dollars, that person literally shouted: “Shut the f—k up!”   Once when I was renting a room from a very wealthy landlord, he came down and saw me counting the pennies on the table.  Scowling in disgust, he shouted: “Stop that!”  When I was in a similar position, and I asked a friend for five dollars, he replied: “Five dollars is not going to solve your problem, Andy.”  But five dollars could have kept me alive another day.

I saw five homeless people die overnight, having preexisting medical conditions, unable to withstand one more night in the cold.  Had any of them had but five dollars, they could have gotten inside a bus and slept throughout the night.   Granted, the problem of homelessness would not have been solved by five dollars.  But a far greater problem might have been solved — the problem known as death.  

This is why frustration mounts, for that same person was perfectly magnanimous toward me when he wasn’t hung up on needing to “solve my problem.”  Nor was I asking him to provide a solution, as though nothing but a detailed plan to get me off the streets would be satisfactory.  I was only requesting a small amount of money, fearing an overnight death in the cold, as I had seen my other friends die.  So naturally, it is easy to rage and roar at the rich in light of such a constant cold shoulder.  But to do so does little good for the cause, for some have done so with violence.   

I have written a musical that explores the effects of classism, social stigma, and homelessness on the youth of today’s America.  I conceived of this musical because I have been there.  The impoverished may not be able to afford tickets to this musical once it is finally produced.   But the impoverished, the homeless, and the underprivileged, are not the ones who need to see this production.  Those who need to see it — at least according to its author’s intent — are those who have never experienced the energy of the streets, nor of the outdoors, of Nature, and the terrifying adventures thereof.  I write from a position of one unsheltered, and I write to the sheltered – not to shatter their shelter, nor scatter the remains of their relics abroad to destruction, but to show them the shamelessness of those who are without, that they might be moved, and share of the shelter that is within.

The gap created by class distinctions and social stigma in America has always been wide.  Throughout history, it’s been very wide, and a very difficult one to bridge.  But it can be bridged — and it must be bridged — if America is to endure.   After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  But we do nothing to strengthen our weak links.  We throw our elders into poorly run board-and-care homes, rather than care for them ourselves.  And some of the shelters into which we throw our homeless are little more than glorified prisons.  Should we really be that quick to discard from our company those who have lost their homes?   

viktor frankl
Viktor Frankl

Many of us who have escaped the horrors of continuous homelessness seem driven, or even desperate, to convey a message that at first may appear to be unintelligible.  A similar dynamic took place, on a much more grotesque, grandiose scale, when those who survived the Nazi concentration camps emerged with a sudden upsurge of vigor.  Viktor Frankl reports that many such survivors entered immediately into massive consumerism, guzzling beer and gobbling down huge helpings of their favorite foods, of which they’d been deprived.  In Frankl’s case, he launched wholeheartedly into the book that became Man’s Search for Meaning.  They who have survived the conditions of homelessness often display a similar spike of renewed motivation, drive, and sense of purpose. 

The gush of enthusiasm with which we who have survived the conditions of homelessness often seek to reveal the hidden secrets of the Homeless Experience can be off-putting.  But the message itself is little more than a restatement of time-honored principles that have helped hold this nation together for over two hundred years.  I did not coin the phrase: “United We Stand; Divided We Fall.”  Still, because of the frustration we tend to express when we feel we are not being heard, and the violent, hostile nature of a conspicuous minority among those who seek to express it, they who have the power to do something about the matter quite naturally turn their ears to more appealing voices.  If only they knew that in so doing, they are shunning the voices that count.